The USDA’s Genetically Modified Dilemma

Environmental Organizations Sue the USDA for its Approval of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was recently back in the courts defending its favorite biotech company, Monsanto. Last month, a coalition of farmers and food safety groups sued the agriculture department for approving genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa without first adequately analyzing the biotech crop’s environmental impacts, or the law regulating GE crops, the Plant Protection Act. The crop, known as “Roundup Ready” alfalfa and made by Monsanto, is engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed-killing mixture.

One of the biggest problems with approving GE alfalfa for mass use (and there are many problems to pick from) is that, according to the USDA’s own data, farmers currently don’t use herbicides to successfully grow most alfalfa. That means that if GE alfalfa is widely grown, up to 23 million more pounds of unnecessary, toxic herbicides will be released into the environment each year, according to the agency’s own studies. Another problem is that the crop will inevitably contaminate organic alfalfa, which is fed to the organic dairy industry’s cows.

This isn’t the first time the Department of Agriculture has gotten into trouble for carelessly approving genetically engineered crops. In fact, it’s not even the first time that it’s been sued for approving GE alfalfa. In 2007, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) brought a lawsuit against the department for approving the biotech crop without first examining its environmental risks. As a result, the court ordered the USDA to study its environmental impacts, a first for the agency, which has approved GE crops without assessing their impacts for the past 15 years. During the study, GE alfalfa remained unlawful to plant or sell, a ban that remained in place despite Monsanto appealing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite the concerns that have been raised over GE crops, including the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa, the evolution of herbicide-resistant superweeds, and increased herbicide use, in 2011 the USDA once again approved the biotech crop for commercial use, much to the chagrin of organic and conventional farmers and environmental groups. As part of its overall work in challenging the USDA’s commercialization of herbicide-tolerant crops, Earthjustice, together with CFS and a coalition of farmers, is challenging the recent USDA decision, arguing that it violates the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws.

“We expect Monsanto to force-feed people genetically engineered crops—that’s its business model,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who is co-counsel on the case. “We hoped for better from the USDA, which has much broader responsibilities.”

In the meantime, Monsanto is finding itself in hot water over its GE crops. A group of farmers and seed dealers recently sued the seed company to invalidate Monsanto’s patents in an effort to keep Monsanto from suing them in the event that their seeds are contaminated by the company’s GE crops, and a new study found that genetically modified crops appear to leave trace insecticides in the bloodstreams of those who eat them.